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- Atlantic BeachSep 03, 2012
When out-of-towners think of Jacksonville’s beaches they likely think of the city’s largest and liveliest coastal neighbor, Jacksonville Beach. While Jacksonville Beach is more tourist-focused and certainly has its merits, many locals know that Atlantic Beach is really the place to be. Occupying two miles of beautiful white sand beachfront with 14 public accesses, Atlantic Beach is a gem that most visitors somewhat bypass due to the way A1A jogs several blocks inland at Atlantic Boulevard, the town’s southern boundary line with Neptune Beach. They don’t see the gorgeous tree-covered neighborhoods full of aesthetically pleasing (and in some instances rather creative) architecture. They see and are quite satisfied by the beautiful beaches just south of the city, in Jacksonville Beach and Neptune Beach, not realizing that the sandy strand is actually even prettier and less crowded several blocks to the north.
Together with its smaller sister, Neptune Beach, Atlantic Beach shares the lively, beautifully landscaped Beach Town Center, a few square blocks full of funky, trendy and casual hotspots located just footsteps from the sandy shore. At Beach Town Center, popular restaurants like North Beach Fish Camp, Ragtime, Sun Dog Diner, Al’s Pizza, Poe’s Tavern, Mezza Luna, Ocean 60, Joseph’s, and Sliders -- along with other eateries, coffee and dessert shops, and bars -- draw patrons from Jacksonville and beyond in a very idyllic, friendly atmosphere. Here it is common to see swimsuit-clad bicyclists, sandy-footed just-off-the-beach pedestrians, well-groomed for a date yuppies, and family guys like myself pushing strollers loaded with beach bags and toys.
For those who can afford it, the Atlantic Beach side of Town Center is anchored by One Ocean, a posh oceanfront resort and spa with its own swanky oceanfront restaurant. If you visited Atlantic Beach in years gone by you may remember the Sea Turtle Hotel which used to be in its place. The long-time landmark was sold, completely remodeled and upgraded to become One Ocean. Given its location on both the beachfront and at the foot of Beach Town Center, One Ocean is THE place to stay at the beach. Fortunately though, the Neptune Beach side is also anchored by a more modest oceanfront alternative, the Sea Horse Oceanfront Inn. The Sea Horse is a nicely renovated vintage throwback to the small oceanside hotels of the mid-1900s, notable for its bright pink color and a hugely popular poolside bar.
Most of Atlantic Beach chiefly consists of block after block of residential neighborhoods, uninterrupted by commercial development. The primary exception is Atlantic Boulevard, a busy (but nicely landscaped) tapestry of restaurants, fast food joints, retail centers, gas stations, banks, and other typical suburban businesses. Atlantic Blvd. forms the city’s southern boundary with Neptune Beach, starts at the heart of Beach Town Center, and continues westward as a primary bridge link across the Intracoastal to Jacksonville. Mayport Road, which carries the A1A signage up to the neighboring fishing village of Mayport and its auto ferry, is a commercial corridor that runs up the west side of Atlantic Beach. A couple dining highlights along Atlantic Blvd. include Beach Diner, a favorite “locals” hangout for breakfast and lunch on the Atlantic Beach side of the road, and Hurricane Grill & Wings, a beachy chain restaurant located on the Neptune Beach side that offers a diverse menu and reasonable prices.
To satisfy your inner-surfer, Aqua East is a two-story surf shop located on the Neptune Beach side of Atlantic Blvd. at Seminole Road. Aqua East offers wave runner and boat rentals in addition to selling the usual surf shop fare. It is easily recognizable by all the large surf gear poster advertisements plastered in its windows. Aqua East is one of the largest of several Jacksonville area surf shops that cater to a vibrant local surf culture. While Jacksonville's Beaches are perhaps not as acclaimed for their waves as East Coast hot spots like Cocoa Beach, they are home to sponsored professionals who compete in international tournaments. On any given day, a trip to the beach may make you a spectator of some local surfing action, ocean kayaking, windsurfing, paddleboarding, skimboarding, or even -- when the wind is right -- kiteboarding.
To most people, Seminole Rd. probably looks like just another road that disappears into the nice, tree canopied residential neighborhoods that make up most of the city of Atlantic Beach. Consequently, many of those who do not live in Atlantic Beach never venture down it. The locals know, however, that it is the primary route to Atlantic Beach's secret gem: its northernmost stretch of beachfront. Those who appreciate quirky, imaginative architecture will love the oceanfront homes along this quiet, residential stretch of northern Atlantic Beach, particularly around the 18th Street and 19th Street beach access. Many of the oceanfront homes here were designed by William Morgan, a famed local architect, and reflect a variety of unique designs. Using your imagination, you may spot a flying saucer, a pyramid, a sandcastle, an underground house (identified by two large circular windows carved into the side of a grassy mound) and other interesting cottages that reflect a mix of New England, Coastal South, Caribbean, and whimsical design influences. The 18th Street and 19th Street beach accesses each offer a block of free parking spaces. From 18th Street, beach access is provided via a narrow wooden stairway that affords a breathtaking view from the top, before descending to a long wooden walkway across the dune valley. From 19th Street, it’s a gradual uphill climb before descending down a sandy path through a gateway of towering sea oats. Of course, the beach that fronts these houses and access points is a treat in itself, characterized by the same features found farther south, but with larger dunes and few people. Here, one can really feel like he is free to enjoy the splendor of God’s majestic seashore. Do keep in mind though, that unless you know a local, the nearest bathroom is a good hike even farther north, across the northern limit of Atlantic Beach, to Hanna Park.
Hanna Park is a natural beach area with even bigger dunes (but more people) that is accessible from Mayport Rd. The park is actually within the city limits of Jacksonville, not Atlantic Beach, which maintains it well but charges a minimal admission fee. In addition to its wide, white sand beach with lush green dunes, Hanna Park boasts acres of coastal woodland recreation areas including freshwater lakes (with paddleboat rentals), numerous hiking and biking trails, ample picnic areas, a children's water play area and camping facilities. Locally, the park is famous for its great mountain biking trails and for "The Poles," Jacksonville's storied surfing spot (named for the markers that designate the off-limits property of Mayport N.A.S.
Back in Atlantic Beach, about half-way down the aforementioned Seminole Rd., are two city parks situated across the street from each other: Howell Park and Jack Russell Park. Howell Park is a small wooded wonderland of trees and trails nestled amidst a residential neighborhood. While wandering along and over the park’s tranquil streams, visitors may see a community of turtles. There is even an unexpected bat box posted on one of the trees – but I have not seen any bats there, or anywhere in the Jacksonville area outside the zoo. Across the street, Jack Russell Park is popular with locals who come for the Little League baseball games, skateboard park, playgrounds, tennis facilities, and basketball courts. Finally, a third noteworthy nature area can be found along the Intracoastal, accessible via Mayport Rd. The Dutton Island Preserve is a marsh island with a trail and picnic tables. It is perhaps most enjoyed by kayakers, who use it as a launching point.